We all want what's best for our families, friends, and neighborhoods. We struggle, work, and sacrifice to make the lives of those we love better. It pains us when we see folks we know in trouble, and it is easy to be disturbed and frightened when that trouble hits too close to home. Such is life in Oakland, a place that we "hella" love, yet know has its challenges.
The question for all Oakland residents in dealing with these challenges is how do we find solutions that are forward thinking and have positive outcomes for all, instead of adopting reactionary efforts that give up long-term sustainability for short-term gain for a few? This is the crux of the public safety debate going on right now concerning the rapid growth of private security patrols in the city.
While it's unclear exactly how many areas of Oakland are covered by private patrols right now, an October forum at the Dimond library revealed that upwards of several thousand households were or were about patrolled by private security in the neighborhoods of Maxwell Park, Laurel, Dimond, Oakmore, Rockridge, and Temescal. Given the explosive growth of private security patrols, it's not hard to imagine large parts of Oakland being under their watch in the near future.
It's also easy to understand why some folks might react and turn to something unproven to solve the city's crime problems. Most of us know one or more residents who have been touched by crime in Oakland. In my neighborhood, in the span of one month, there were several burglaries and two home-invasion robberies. A day doesn't go by where I don't think about the safety of my family and community. I want policies that will be efficient and effective at bringing peace, health, and vibrancy to where I live. I also want those policies to be just, forward thinking, and sustainable, which is why I am against these private patrols.
There are no long-term, independent studies on the effectiveness of these patrols. But even if there were evidence that they reduce crime in the areas they serve, I would still be against them — for several reasons.
First, is the issue of the training and protocols of private patrol employees. We live in a diverse urban community, and youth and people of color in our city are often disproportionately targeted and profiled for criminal activity by police. How will this be any different for private security patrols? How is a private patrol guard going to know who is legitimately in a particular neighborhood? Who bestows legitimacy? The patrol guards might become familiar with some residents in the neighborhood, but what if a cousin or friend of my family stops by and decides, as anyone has the right, to go on a walk or pick something up from the corner store? It was poor neighborhood watch training, along with racist sentiments altogether too prevalent in our society, that led to the murder of Trayvon Martin. Even rigorous police training has not prevented many instances of racial profiling and officer abuse, leading up to and including the deaths of innocent, unarmed individuals like Oscar Grant.
Just this past Thursday, a significant and almost deadly occurrence took place that sounds like the result of procedures not being followed and protocols not being adhered to. A private patrol officer in the upper Dimond area stumbled upon a burglary in progress, and then proceeded to chase (against the best practices of other private security firms) a fleeing suspect and, when allegedly threatened, shot and wounded the eighteen-year-old.
While some community members are praising this private security company's actions, others are alarmed that a private patrol officer would use deadly force to apprehend an individual suspected of, among other things, stealing a telescope. Does this theft justify almost killing the young man? Are we ready to take justice out of the courts and into our streets?
This shooting also has led to even more concerns about how to hold these security companies accountable for their training and their actions. What happens if a fellow neighbor or, God forbid, a child just passing through the neighborhood, gets hit by a stray bullet fired by a private patrol officer? Who is responsible? The security company? Many security companies insist on contracts that limit their liability. Are Oakland homeowners willing to risk litigation and large financial judgments against them because of a tragedy they indirectly funded?
Security patrols also threaten our ability to work collectively to solve our problems and represent yet another expansion of privatization. From private school vouchers to the burgeoning for-profit prison industry, the plague of privatization is reducing the amount of resources available to effectively build a safe, healthy, more just society for all residents regardless of wealth.
Private patrols are not free. Folks pay up to $40 a month or $475 a year for these services. But, as residents are paying for these private services, the city desperately needs more funds to meet the many challenges of public safety: More after-school programs; more library hours; more jobs and job training programs, especially for ex-offenders and folks with limited formal education; more violence prevention outreach workers; and more police officers to investigate crimes.
Traditionally, it has been a hard sell for Oakland to raise taxes to pay for more policing. This is because, in many communities, the police are seen as much as part of the problem as they are the solution. How eager will people who pay for private security be to vote in favor of taxes for violence prevention when they are already paying hundreds of extra dollars a year?